IVF mix-up: Thomson Medical fined $20,000

Court imposes maximum fine, citing serious consequences of lapse

The hospital at the centre of last year’s in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) mix-up was fined the maximum of $20,000 yesterday.

Thomson Medical Centre’s lapses contributed to the mix-up in which a couple who had assisted reproduction treatment ended up with a baby who was not biologically related to the man.

The child also had a markedly different complexion from that of the mother, a Chinese Singaporean, and her Caucasian husband.

A representative of the company pleaded guilty to failing to ensure suitable assisted reproduction practices were followed.

The mix-up happened in January last year, when the centre processed two semen specimens at the same time, the court heard. It then failed to throw out the used pipettes, which are thin suction tubes for handling small quantities of liquids.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Charlene Tay said these practices were neither suitable nor acceptable, based on locally and internationally accepted norms.

She said two local experts had confirmed that the same disposable pipette should not be reused for multiple steps in semen processing. Only one semen specimen should be processed at any one time, to avoid mix-ups.

Ms Tay said guidelines issued by the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology also state that the pipettes should be used for one procedure only, should never be used for more than one patient, and should be disposed of immediately after use.

Arguing for the maximum fine, she urged the court to send a clear message that professional standards in health-care establishments must be upheld. Failing to stick to these standards may have far-reaching consequences for patients.

Ms Tay said the defendant had to be deterred from future breaches, and reminded that it had to comply with its obligations to implement suitable practices.

“Severe and irreversible consequences have ensued from the lapses,” she added. “It has resulted in the birth of a child who is not the genetic child of both the intended parents, but who has the genetic material of the intended mother and the genetic material of an unknown father.

“This is a blunder that will be likely to haunt the family for life, and will have a long-term psychological impact on them.”

Ms Tay said the incident has cast a dark cloud over Singapore’s reputation as a medical hub, and undermined the confidence of numerous couples undergoing assisted reproduction.

Senior Counsel Lok Vi Ming said the women and children’s hospital had received numerous awards and accolades over the years.

One of the pioneers in assisted reproduction, it delivered Singapore’s first IVF triplets in 1988 and South-east Asia’s first-surviving IVF quadruplets in 1989, and was one of the world’s first fertility clinics to produce a pair of twins from frozen eggs and frozen sperm in 2000.

To date, it has treated more than 5,000 couples with fertility issues, and has achieved more than 1,000 births from its assisted reproduction programme.

District Judge Sarjit Singh said the maximum fine was called for in this case, as serious consequences had resulted from the clinic’s unsuitable practices. 

“A very large degree of care is absolutely necessary in assisted reproduction, to ensure confidence among couples who seek such treatment,” he added.

The Health Ministry suspended all new assisted reproductive activities at the centre last November. The lifting of the suspension is under review.

Mr Allan Yeo, president (Singapore and Vietnam) of Thomson Medical, said the company fully accepted the sentence.

“We are truly sorry for the distress that this has caused to the parties involved,” he said. “Through this time, we have taken every effort to be transparent and compliant with the investigation. We have since strengthened our governance and have put in place more robust protocol to ensure that we fully comply with the regulatory requirements.”

The couple’s lawyer, Mr S. Palaniappan, said last night that he did not think any sentence would adequately reflect the consequences of the mistake, which the child and the parents will have to endure for the rest of their lives.